ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A banner added. A win in the books. A brand new season of NHL hockey underway.
The Wild treated 18,568 to an entertaining first step toward its stated goal of repeating as Northwest Division champions Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, topping the visiting Boston Bruins, 4-3. On a night when the club raised its "2007-08 Northwest Division Champions" banner to the rafters, Eric Belanger scored twice, while Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard earned two assists apiece. Newcomers Marc-Andre Bergeron and Antti Miettinen also added power play goals and Niklas Backstrom made 34 saves.
Earlier this week, Jacques Lemaire referred to how important a first win is each season. Now, a few days and one full game later, Lemaire, who afterward was nowhere near ready to anoint his team "perfect," as he did with a laugh after Saturday's morning skate, he did at least admit to being pleased with the W.
"It's always great to win, I always mention it's great to win," he said. "But you have to know that there are certain things you'll have to do in the future if you want to keep wining."
After Saturday's game, Lemaire played the familiar role of a man thinking about his club as a work in progress.
"You know how excited I was before the game?," he asked rhetorically. "Now I need another game. I have to see more. I have to see more. I like the potential that we have. Now we have to play together."
For the time being, the Wild is undefeated and has itself one win from which to build.
The story of this Game 1 win, however, didn't exactly go according to plan from the outset.
After the banner was raised, the Wild dug an early hole. Just over three minutes into the game, a Brent Burns high stick on Phil Kessel gave Boston a four-minute power play. Minnesota held the Bruins scoreless, but by the time Martin Skoula saved a sure goal on the doorstep with 14:34 left in the first, the Wild trailed in shots, 9-3, and would soon allow the game's first goal.
With just over 12 minutes left in the frame, Patrice Bergeron hit the post on a knuckler from the right circle. As the play continued, Bergeron found Kessel across the zone, and the former Gopher gave his team a 1-0 lead on shot No. 10 when a quick release didn't give Backstrom enough time to get across his crease.
"That was not a good start," said Lemaire.
Minnesota, though, would not take a deficit into the intermission.
The Wild instead managed to even the game with 1:28 to play in the first, when Belanger, camped to the left of the Boston goal on the power play, took a pass from Colton Gillies and swept a shot past Manny Fernandez. Significant on its own, the goal also marked the 19-year-old rookie Gillies' first point in the NHL.
Lemaire would later say that his favorite period, despite allowing two goals against, was the third, but it was in the second that Minnesota took the lead it would need to earn the one-goal win.
The Wild scored three times in the second. Four minutes into the frame, Bergeron wound up from the point late on a Minnesota power play, and he was credited with the go-ahead goal at 15:59 after his slap shot found its way through traffic.
Near the halfway point of the game, Miettinen made his mark. Koivu sparked a fine breakout with a pass in his own end from the right wing and across to Andrew Brunette on the left wing. Brunette gained the zone and waited for Miettinen to flash through the middle of the slot. When he did, Brunette slid a pass that the Hameenlinna, Finland, native was able to redirect in for a 3-1 lead with 9:41 to play in the second.
More good passing led to Minnesota's fourth goal.
As Bouchard bought time and space while stickhandling below the goal line, Belanger, who was on the bench and ready to relieve James Sheppard at the end of a shift, saw the potential for what might happen.
Belanger jumped over the boards and charged to open ice as Bouchard was curling behind the net toward that side of the rink. Bouchard feathered a backhand pass to a place where Belnager could step in to a one-timer, and that's just what he did for a 4-1 lead with 7:32 left in the frame.
"Butchy saw me coming late," Belanger said of what would turn out to be the game-winner. "Nobody [else] saw me. He made the whole play happen. I just knew. You just know those things. We know how good Butch is with the puck, and I was expecting that he saw me. He did and made a great play."
The three-goal second became important when Boston's Marc Savard scored twice in the third period to close the gap.
First at 11:51 and again at 18:22, Savard converted goals on the Bruins 34th and 37th shots, respectively. Boston outshot the Wild in each period, and 12-5 in the third, which came to a close with Stephane Veilleux in the box, Fernandez pulled, and whole lot of action in front of Backstrom.
"I know we'll play better than we did tonight," Lemaire said.
Game puck goes to ...
Belanger (two goals, 14:17 played): "He was one of the best players tonight. Shot the puck, he was strong in our end, put his body in front of them so they couldn't get the puck. He made good plays like that. He and Antti, I think they were the two top players." -- Lemaire on Belanger
"Doesn't matter who I play with this year. We have a lot of depth. Any given night, I think you're going to see different guys step up. Tonight I helped the team with two goals. Another night, it might be Stephane or Butch or Mikko. I think that's going to be our team this year." -- Belanger on team depth
"We're not playing the style we're used to playing. That's why [we were] not getting any shots. We were not able to get in their zone. It's hard to shoot from our end." -- Lemaire
The Bruins scratched RW Chuck Kobasew, who broke his ankle in the opener. He's out indefinitely. ... Minnesota scratched D Marek Zidlicky (ankle), who with Bergeron was acquired to boost the offensive capability of the blue line. ... Kessel and rookie teammate Blake Wheeler both played for the University of Minnesota. ... Lemaire on Gillies' debut: "He's got to shorten up the shifts. Once there, I was looking at my watch. Is he ever going to get off?" Told that means the kid is eager to play, Lemaire responded: "But that's not how he's going to play."
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